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New Music for Harp With Edge, Bite and a Killer Sense of Humor

Once in a great while, someone writes album liner notes so priceless that they scream to be quoted. Here’s Michael Lewanski offering some background for Ben Melsky‘s album New Works for Harp with his group Ensemble Dal Niente:

“There might be many things that strike you as odd about the idea of a new music harp album…the first is that there’s very little, strictly speaking, that is less new than the harp… it seems that earliest exemplars are found in the Sumerian city of Ur, from the mid-fourth millennium BCE, perhaps before very many people had figured out how to write. You also find them, starting in 3000 BCE or so, painted on tombs of Egyptian pharaohs who apparently wanted enjoyable-but-not-too-noisy entertainment in the afterlife.) It doesn’t get much more basic than plucking a string; no wonder this instrument has been around for awhile.

Another has to do with the hackneyed cliché, found among both musicians and non-, of the harp as an instrument that is the ne plus ultra of the elegant and genteel, nudging in the direction of the effete and decadent. (Along those lines, one of its best known moments in the so-called “standard repertoire” is the cadenza in the Valse des fleurs from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker: a work titled in a language foreign to the composer for a piece in which a waltz (a genre inextricably bound up with the most ennui’d of aristocracy) is danced by flowers in the Land of Sweets. I challenge you to find me something more froo-froo in the history of art.”

Needless to say, Melsky’s record – streaming at Bandcamp– is not exactly froo-froo. The first number is Tomás Gueglio‘s brief After L’Addio, its muted glissandos punctuated by spare accents and percussive figures along with a handful of coy doppler riffs. The title references a Salvatore Sciarrino work for harp which attempts to maximize what little sustain the instrument can deliver. Steadily plucked close harmonies and deliciously subtle overtones dominate the diptych’s second half, Felt For Harp.

Emma Hospelhorn joins Melsky for a duo piece, Alican Çamci’s staggeredly syncopated, spacious Perde for Bass Flute and Harp, which with the flutist basically humming through her instrument much of the time is as playful as it is distantly disquieting. An alternate title for this increasingly magical, microtonally-spiced tableau could be Sonata for Fly and Music Box.

Another duo work, Fredrick Gifford’s Mobile 2015: Satirise features guitarist Jesse Langen and lots of extended technique, with plenty of whirry noise along with the spare, chiming interplay.

A Wang Lu shout-out to Christian Wolff contrasts Melsky’s slo-mo, acerbically circular phrases with Katie Schoepflin Jimoh’s alternately hazy and fluttery clarinet. The album’s longest, funniest and best number is Igor Santos‘ Anima. Percussionist Kyle Flens adds warpy. singing bowl-like textures and all sorts of quasi-vocalized buffoonery, going back and forth with Melsky’s wry whistles and peek-a-book moments. As cartoon music goes, it doesn’t get any better than this.

With its sudden swells and triumphantly gritty flourishes contrasting with moments of silence, the album’s final number is Eliza Brown‘s On-dit (French for “they say”), soprano Amanda DeBoer Bartlett adding perhaps the album’s most terse, minimalistic contribution. This is a great late-night listen for people who like quiet, thoughtful music with an edge.

A Timely Musical Celebration of One of the Great Poets of the Holocaust

This blog is not a guide to broadcasts and webcasts, but there’s an especially intriguing one coming up on Friday, June 26 at 9 PM when new music chamber group Ensemble for These Times are livestreaming the release show for their new album Once/Memory/Night: Paul Celan at YouTube.

“Why Paul Celan and why now?” the group ask. “The year 2020 is the centennial of the birth of the seminal poet, whose influential works speak to his experiences of loss, disempowerment, imprisonment and survival under a brutal regime; the themes in his work—the rise of fascism, “strong men” leaders, and nations marching to the drumbeat of nationalism—deeply resonate today with the global right-wing resurgence and rampant injustice.” Download the program notes here.

The webcast will include live chat with composers including Juliana Hall, Gabriela Lena Frank, and Kareem Roustom, interviews with Vivian Fung, Aleksandra Vrebalov, David Garner, and soprano Chelsea Hollow, music from the album, and videos of performances by the ensemble (Dale Tsang, piano, Anne Lerner, cello, soprano Nanette McGuinness, guests Laura Reynolds, English horn, Ilana Blumberg, violin, Xin Zhao, piano).

The group are officially releasing the record on June 30, a mix of new music premiered in 2018 by the ensemble’s co-founder David Garner and Jared Redmond to poetry by Celan; by Stephen Eddins to poetry by Czeslaw Milosz, including a reading of the poem by the translator and poet’s son Anthony Milosz, plus a relevant piece by Libby Larsen.

A Thoughtfully Enveloping Debut Album From Innovative Composer/Organist Molly Joyce

Composer Molly Joyce performs on the rarest of vintage instruments: the toy electric organ. She accumulated a serious collection in the wake of a horrific car accident that left her with limited mobility in her left hand – so she switched from piano to an instrument with easier action but an unexpectedly rich sonic palette, especially in the high midrange and above. Her debut album Breaking and Entering is streaming at Bandcamp. At low volume, this is soothing, enveloping music: played louder, its edges reveal themselves.

The first track, Body and Being, begins with twinkling, Terry Riley-ish loops and grows denser as Simon sends tectonic sheets from across the sonic spectrum through the mix, “Do you react to me, do you contract from me?” Joyce asks.

Her airy high soprano rises to stratospheric heights in Form and Flee: “You’re not normality, but you’re mortality,” she intones over an increasingly tense, circling pulse. Stereolab seems to be an influence on that track and also the title track, which she builds around a simple accordionish blues riff,

A fluttering, oscillating interlude leads into Who Are You, the album’s most anxious vocal contrasting with a calm undercurrent and some keening new wave riffage. Joyce brings the album full circle with Front and Center: “Try to remember your truest nature,” she reminds. Words of wisdom in an interminable season of alienation and atomization. Joyce is playing a webcast to celebrate the album’s release this Friday June 26, at 5 PM at youube.

Revisiting a Rewarding, Diverse Collection of New Classical Works

Editor’s note: As longtime readers may remember, in the days before the lockdown, New York Music Daily’s coverage was focused on live music. Nobody here, or probably anywhere in the world, expected the lockdown to last so long. The first few weeks after March 16 created an opportunity to revisit some albums that had been sitting on the hard drive here but hadn’t gotten the attention they deserved. This is one of them. You may see some of those records pop up here from time to time. Enjoy!

Today’s album is Dreamfall, released by distinctive indie classical group Now Ensemble in 2015 as a follow-up to their harrowing 2012 recording of Missy Mazzoli‘s Songs From the Uproar. It’s more stylistically diverse and somewhat more upbeat but just as adventurous for this wind ensemble enhanced by guitar and piano. The album is still streaming at Bandcamp.

A low, looming metallic fog rises, keening with overtones as Scott Smallwood‘s Still in Here gets underway, flickering bits appearing from time to time. As the drone becomes more of a rumble, tectonic sheets of sound color the upper part of the picture, oscillating at a glacial pace. Although there are discernibly piano and reed textures, the rest of the murk is deliciously mysterious.

The album’s title track, by Mark Dancigers, is a triptych. The first part begins with a playfully dripping piano phrase over orchestration that grows more stark, then the casual, intricately synocopated mood returns. Big neoromantic cadenzas alternate with more carefree interludes: the appearance of the composer’s ringing, ever-so-slightly distorted electric guitar is something of a shock, all the more so because it anchors the music in an attractively wistful folk rock-tinged theme.

Part two follows a dancing, sparkling staccato tangent that grows more kaleidoscopic and then coalesces back toward the neoromantic. Clarinet floats over a gritty, insistent piano-driven glitter in the first half of the conclusion, then the group use a momentary solemn Michael Mizrahi solo piano interlude as a springboard for a lively upward drive over insistent, loopy staccato strings. It’s a fun ride.

Divine the Rest, by John Supko is still and echoey, awash in reverb, with a whispery spoken-word component and gently fluttery phrases that rise toward the end. An enigmatic calm and hammering bustle alternate in Nathan Williamson‘s Trans-Atlantic Flight of Fancy; bristling suspense-movie accents from throughout the ensemble grow more warmly agitated

Sarah Kirkland Snider’s Pale As Centuries is the album’s most striking piece. Its wary guitar theme recedes for Terry Riley-ish upper-register circles, clarinet floating amid piano turbulence and eerie concentric circles just below: it wouldn’t be out of place in the Darcy James Argue catalog.

Andrea Mazzariello‘s Trust Fall makes a great segue, from its similarly uneasy slow guitar/bass/clarinet interweave, rising to exchanges between triumphant peaks, a twinkling calm and river of a coda from the piano. The album concludes with Judd Greenstein’s City Boy, sparkling with spiky, circular motives, a bit of a jig, and hints of Carole King woven together up to an unexpectedly sober ending.

A Lush, Sweeping Debut Album From the String Orchestra of Brooklyn

Although the String Orchestra of Brooklyn have been championing new composers for more than ten years, their debut album – streaming at Bandcamp – only came out late last year. It has two spacious, rather horizontal contemporary pieces alongside a couple of unselfconsciously vigorous Italian Renaissance works, The dynamics and range of the ensemble, as well as the singers, really shine here.

The first piece is Christopher Cerrone‘s High Windows, beginning with shivery sixteenth-notes behind sudden doppler bursts and a low drone. A sudden airy horizontality slowly gains momentum with terse moodiness rising from the low strings, the violins finally descending and joining the lattice. A muted loopiness in the return of the opening theme has icy echoes of electronic music; it ends in a long, somber series of waves.

Jacob Cooper‘s Stabat Mater Dolarosa unfolds at a glacial pace, sheets of sound drifting through the mix, akin to watching cirrus clouds on the horizon on a relatively windless day. Uneasy close harmonies rise and then fade away. The composer’s use of implied melody as the sound rises with an allusive ominousness from the low strings is very clever, especially as a choir enter wordlessly. With the singers sometimes adding harmony, sometimes doubling the violin lines, the atmosphere grows more somber, leading to a long descent into the abyss led by the basses. The rise to density afterward is much more disquieting, with a series of slow, massed glissandos. The effect where the singers have to pause for a breath is, well, breathtaking. Soprano Mellissa Hughes adds stark, plainchant-inspired lines over the waves of the concluding movement

Paganini’s Caprice No. 6 in G minor is actually more of a canon, also built around slowly shifting sustained lines, but with rapidfire, tremoloing violin. The ensemble close the album with a steadfastly marching interpretation of the first movement of Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater, the choir enhancing a gothic undercurrent.

An Unexpectedly Vigorous Yet Characteristically Dark Album of Arvo Part Music

Violinist Viktoria Mullova’s album of Arvo Part works with the Estonian National Symphony Orchestra under Parvo Jaarvi – streaming at Spotify – reads like a single contiguous piece of music. While not all of it is brooding and mystical, in keeping with most of the composer’s work, the overall atmosphere is characteristically somber. It may be a cliche to say that musicians from a composer’s home turf play that repertoire best, but with this album it’s hard to argue with that contention.

In the brief, austerely sober Song of Songs, which opens the album, spare, tolling bell accents linger through the ominous upward drive to Mullova’s first shivery cadenza; then silence. Airy highs draw a brooding response from the orchestra.

Her energetically circling, folk-inspired solo arpeggios, introducing the second piece, Fratres, offer not the slightest hint of the still, vast expanses that will unfold. This time it’s a woodblock and bass drum which signal Mullova’s elegant varations on the opening dance, over a crepuscular drone.. The rest of the strings follow with a much more somber, rhythmically disorienting development of the jaunty opening sequence. Meanwhile, the basses are unrelenting, holding a quietly sustained, enigmatic fifth interval.

Short, elegantly stabbing violin phrases lead to a momentary, strikingly dancing passage (for Part, anyway) in his rather rousingly crescendoing, vividly Bach-tinged Passacaglia. Mullova returns to insistent minimalism over an airy calm and fleeting, Arabic-tinged pizzicato to close it out.

The album’s centerpiece is the triptych Tabula Rasa. Ludus, the opening movement, follows a similar trajectory; this time it’s the piano which punches in as a stern anchor while the bells add sparse, enigmatic close harmonies. Essentially, this is Part’s Symphonic Dances, bristling with increasingly emphatic echo phrases punctuated by morose, reflectively quiet passages. That long, sustained chord at the end of the movement really packs a wallop!

A steady baroque-tinged cavatina theme takes shape in Silentum, the second movement: its seemingly endless wave motion looks back to Gorecki’s iconic Symphony No. 3. Where this ends with a steady descent to the depths, the Song of Songs reprise is delicate and hopeful, Mullova’s solemn resonance over loopy, steady upper-register piano. Slowly and methodically, the music grows more plaintive and more evocative of Pachelbel than any of the 20th century figures Part is associated with. For anyone reflecting on those we’ve lost during the lockdown, this makes an apt soundtrack.

Colorful, Purposeful, Entertaining New String Music From the Zephyr Quartet

One of this year’s most enjoyable and defiantly uncategorizable albums is the Zephyr Quartet‘s latest release, Epilogue, streaming at Spotify. The Australian group distinguish themselves as one of an increasing number of string ensembles who write their own music. They like basslines: whether in the lows or the highs, someone’s always plucking out a groove. The pieces here are relatively short, drawing on minimalism as well as Celtic and Nordic folk traditions.

The opening number is Great White Bird, by cellist and leader Hilary Kleinig, a picturesque, swirling, triumphantly soaring folk-tinged piece anchored by catchy pizzicato cello. Those swoops and dives from violinists Belinda Gehlert and Emily Tulloch and violist Jason Thomas are irresistibly fun.

Gehlert’s ominously colorful triptych Femme Fatale begins with Anne Boleyn, shifting from distantly baroque-tinged resonance to a couple of lithe, dancing themes: there is no execution scene or for that matter any real sense of imminent doom. The second movement, Hedda Gabler rises from a steady, moody, synccopated web of counterpoint to a rich, organ-like resonance: when the higher and lower strings shift roles the effect is breathtaking. The dancing, bustling, anthemic conclusion, Huldra is a portrait of a Nordic goddess who devours the men she preys on if they don’t behave.

Cockatoos, by Kleinig follows an anxiously rustling upward trajectory, to a long, crescendoing, gracefully pulsing interweave: deep inside, there’s a brooding Scottish folk song lurking somewhere. By contrast, her Exquisite Peace is both more atmospheric and more complex, an enveloping calm grappliing against echo effects and glissandos

Tulloch’s Blindfold Gift, a prancing pizzicato song without words, reaches a peak with a Celtic-tinged theme. Another Tulloch composition, Our Lovely Star has a soaring beauty over shifting, circling pizzicato.

Thomas is represented by two works here. The first, Mulysa comes across as organic trip-hop, rising and falling with an increasingly anthemic drive. And the lushly enveloping Time’s Timeless, peppered with graceful accents from throughout the ensemble, has more of those organ-like long-tone phrases this group indulge in so memorably.

The album concludes with the title track, a slow, steady, Philip Glass-ine canon by Gehlert. Whether you call this chamber pop, classical or folk music – and it’s all of the above – it’s a lot of fun.

Canland: A Goldmine of Rare, Legendary New York Performances

What better time than now to launch an archive of irreplaceable live recordings from the past thirty-three years? Canland just went live a couple of days ago with several days worth of footage of concert performances by iconic figures as well as fringe players from across the worlds of the avant garde, jazz and new classical music since 1987.

On May 10 of that year, a trio of rising star composers – Michael Gordon, Julia Wolfe and David Lang – staged the first annual Bang on a Can Marathon of new music in a stuffy Soho loft. Over the next three decades, the mostly-annual event would take over larger and larger venues and become a New York institution.

If you ever went to one of the marathons, it was obvious that everything was being painstakingly recorded. Relatively little has made it to youtube, one of the reasons why Canland is such a goldmine. The other is that it’s still a work in progress: what’s up now is merely a greatest-hits version, along with some obscure treasures from the marathon’s early years, plus some footage from various shows by the house art-rock band, the Bang on a Can All-Stars.

In keeping with the organization’s goal of breaking down boundaries between musical genres, the diversity of the music is astonishing. Need something soothing and soul-nourishing? Innov Gnawa‘s fifteen minutes of ancient Moroccan trance-dance grooves will do the trick (for the record, this blog wasn’t there when the band played it at the 2017 marathon at the Brooklyn Museum).

If you can handle something harrowing, click on Ensemble Signal’s meticulously grim 2011 version of Wolfe’s Cruel Sister, at the World Financial Center atrium. This blog didn’t exist until a couple of months later, but that piece ended up topping the list of that year’s best songs. One of many other fascinating Wolfe works here is her microtonal, drifiting, echoey Williamsburg Bridge, from the inaugural 1987 marathon.

Lots of big names are represented: Pauline Oliveros, Guy Klucevsek, Meredith Monk, the World Saxophone Quartet, Tania Leon, Phil Kline, Tan Dun, Keeril Makan and both guitarists in Sonic Youth. There are iconic pieces like Frederic Rzewski’s Coming Together – which appears many times in several different arrangements. Terry Riley’s In C is also here, less frequently. There are pioneering works by Ives, Xenakis, Glass, Andriessen and Saariaho plus snippets of Brian Eno’s Music For Airports.

As the years go on, it’s obvious the Bang on a Can hydra are keeping their collective eyes on the ball, showcasing new music by younger artists including Bora Yoon, Gabriella Smith, Amir ElSaffar, Missy Mazzoli and the late Johann Johannsson. The roots of this music also get their due. The Cassatt String Quartet revel in the otherworldliness of Ruth Crawford Seeger’s 1931 quartet. International Contemporary Ensemble play Galina Ulstvolskaya’s strange, insistent (and very brief, barely twelve-minute-long) Symphony No. 5.

And the more off-the-wall material is just as entertaining. The Kazue Sawai Koto Ensemble play one of the very first compositions to feature bass koto (some of it sounds like a posse of possums under the lid of a concert grand piano). In 1989, a pickup group who call themselves the World Casio Quartet play no wave guitar legend David First’s looming, atmospheric Plate Mass; nineteen years later, the Bang on a Can All-Stars tackle a similar yet more somber and animated Erdem Helvacioglu piece. All this is just the of the iceberg. In the mood to go way, way down the rabbit hole? This is your chance.

A Harrowing Song Cycle Takes on New Relevance in a Time of Crisis

Ignac Semmelweis was a 19th century medical heretic who discovered the link between bacteria and infection decades before Pasteur codified it. But not only did the Hungarian-born, Vienna-based physician’s paradigm-shifting work go uncredited: he ended up being shunned by a medical establishment hell-bent on avoiding blame for deaths due to unsanitary hospital conditions. Seventeen years after saving countless women from lethal puerperal fever, Semmelweis died, forgotten, in a mental institution.

On September 11, 2017, singer Ray Lustig debuted his song cycle, Semmelweis, to a sold-out crowd at the National Arts Club. Reviewing it at the time, this blog said that “In an age where leakers are murdered, whistleblowers are jailed as terrorists and 9/11 historians are derided as conspiracy theorists, this story has enormous relevance.” Considering the events that are still unfolding, Lustig’s salute to an unjustly neglected hero has taken on even greater cultural resonance. Now, you can watch the Hungarian debut of the performance, from the following year, on VOD for free through May 31.

In New York, in the title role, Lustig channeled understated angst and horror: Semmelweis can’t let himself off the hook for failing to save all his patients’ lives. Seamlessly negotiating several difficult shifts between idioms, from neoromantic lustre to acidic modernism, soprano Charlotte Mundy was the musical star of the show. The rest of the cast were impressive as well.

And let’s not forget the lesson that Semmelweis taught us: very often, conventional wisdom gets us in trouble. Just because someone who advocates drinking bleach also endorsed hydroxychloroquine doesn’t invalidate the drug’s promise as part of a treatment for coronavirus for some patients. It could be a grave mistake to assume that since the village idiot fixated on something, that idea is necessarily wrong.

Dynamic, Intense String Themes From One-Man Orchestra Christopher Tignor

Violinist Christopher Tignor occupies a unique place in the New York music scene, where the worlds of new classical music, improvisation and ambient psychedelia intersect. For a guy who plays a lot of brooding, overcast music, he’s a very entertaining performer, often doing the one-man band thing with a kickdrum and his trusty loop pedal. His latest album A Light Below is streaming at Bandcamp.

What’s new about this is that it’s hardly all grey skies and moody atmospherics. The first number, Flood Cycles has warmly drifting, coccoony sheets of sound, Tignoer gradually brightening the picture

Loopy, shivery strings and a dramatic, thumping beat make their entrance in Your Slowly Moving Shadow, My Inevitable Night: the majesty and drama rise as Tignor overdubs himself into a one-man symphonic ensemble.

Known By Heart is closer to his earlier work, alternating between hazy unease and ominously crescendoing cumulo-nimbus ambience: imagine a Noveller piece for string orchestra instead of guitar loops. Tignor builds A Mirrored Reliquary from steady, spare overlays to an elegant, plaintive, baroque-tinged theme and arresting swirls – and then brings it back down.

I, Autocorrelations (that’s the title) is a bracingly lush, loopily syncopated dance in 12/4 time. The dancing pulse continues, for awhile at least, in the album’s most epic track, The Resonance Canons, a partita. Echoey pizzicato loops leap beneath shimmery metal gongs, then an enveloping atmosphere return, followed by an oscillating, gamelanesque interlude. Tignor runs an otherworldly, pinging, microtone-spiced riff over organ textures as the looming lows rise; the ending is unexpected.

He winds up the album with the only slightly less expansive What You Must Make of Me, an increasingly disorienting web of simple, translucent motives mingling over a muted piledriver beat; then they filter out, leaving the most anthemic ones in place. The coda seems to be a guarded benediction. Good to see this rugged individualist expanding his sound into new terrain.